Marketers Want Some Face (Recognition) Time with You Credit: Photo Credit: Dreamstime.com

If marketers have their way in the not-so-distant future, your face will help them create ads and promotions tailored to an audience of one...you. An Iowa State University professor foresees facial recognition technology creating new "marketing avatars"—which he calls "mavatars"—that can be used for marketing products and supporting customer applications.

While that kind of technology wasn't prominent this holiday season, retailers aren't too far away from making that a reality, Brian Mennecke, an ISU associate professor of management information systems, said in an unpublished research paper.

"It's not a commercial product yet and to make it really work, you're going to need Facebook or Google or one of these companies to be able to supply what I call the mavatar database," said Mennecke, who has reviewed technologies that are relevant to collecting data, displaying content and interacting with users for his paper. "Google's already built the app [facial recognition app]. They're just afraid to release it."

Facebook recently introduced a new feature called "Tag Suggestions," Mennecke said, which scans images uploaded by users and matches those images with existing users through facial recognition software. Because Facebook users have existing profiles that include photos of themselves in various contexts, Mennecke says the image-scanning software can be used to build a robust profile that includes demographics and other attributes of the user—including how they engage in social, work or leisure activities.

Demands for this kind of application will become increasingly popular with a growing number of people taking photos through their cellphones, Mennecke believes. And as users opt-in to applications such as Facebook's "Tag Suggestions," he contends users may unknowingly be helping to build a substantial facial recognition database that could later be sold to business marketers.

This kind of information could enable marketers to more precisely target ads and know precisely what people are seeking.

"Marketing firms today are very interested in what's called 'customer engagement,' which means they are trying to find better ways to attract your attention and get you to stick around their stores longer," Mennecke said. "They do this better if they can determine who you are, what you like and what you are likely to do."

But there's a downside to having all this information out there, he said—a loss of privacy.

"If you know what's going on behind the scenes of customer profiles, it's really scary stuff," Mennecke said. "And I think people are going to be up in arms about it once they know this technology is out there."